Scouting an unfamiliar opponent

June 1, 2012

Postseason excitement comes in many forms.

Fans cheer when their favorite team is announced as one of the 64 clubs in the NCAA Tournament field on Selection Monday.

For coaches, it's the little things that bring joy, like leaving no stone unturned and discovering game film of your next opponent.

Barca by Brandon Barca (Archive)
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"That's a special sticker on the refrigerator," Assistant Coach Josh Holliday exclaimed to another coach on the team's bus as Vanderbilt departed for the Raleigh Regional Wednesday morning.

With only four days to prepare for UNC Wilmington, a squad the Commodores have never faced in school history, every nugget can help form the scouting report.

Once the brackets were unveiled, the Commodore coaching staff went straight to work, spending countless hours dissecting the Colonial Athletic Association champions.

"You attack the Internet right away to get a feeling of who they are on a piece of paper," Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin explained.

First, Vanderbilt's coaching staff breaks down all of the Seahawks' statistics. They input that information on each UNCW hitter into charts and add their tendencies to put the Commodores in the best fielding position. Then during batting practice on gameday, coaches track players' ball flight and factor pitch movement and velocity of VU's starting pitcher to make adjustments if needed.

Finding game video is one of the early steps, too. Obtaining film is an important part of the scouting process because seeing a player is a lot different than reading about him on paper. Corbin said he took 40 DVDs to the SEC Tournament last week alone to prepare for teams the Commodores had already faced earlier in the season.

Vanderbilt records every college baseball game in the country (yes, every game) that's televised and creates a library of those broadcasts.

One problem this week: UNCW didn't appear on TV this season (Vanderbilt, on the other hand, had 13 games televised including five last week in Hoover). And retrieving video can present obstacles because, unlike football, there isn't a structured sharing system for baseball game footage.

Years ago, finding film might have presented a bigger roadblock, especially since the only common opponent between the two schools is Ole Miss. But with games now regularly streamed online, retrieving video is tough but not impossible.

"With a school like UNC Wilmington, you probably would have to shop around for a big school that they played that had video coverage in order to get that footage. That's what we tried to do. It's somewhat difficult," Corbin said.

The Commodores' tireless search for footage on UNCW turned out to be a success but the details of where the video came from were not disclosed.

Vanderbilt's staff also reaches out to other coaches around the country for scouting reports. But not every assessment is accurate or helpful. "There are very few people who really scour the game and understand it to the point where they can help you," Corbin explained.

Corbin compares the reports to weather forecasts: not too detailed but offer a general understanding of the team you're going to face.

There are also rules— some written, some understood— when dealing with other teams. Conference brethren are discouraged from sharing information with out-of-conference opponents. That doesn't mean the policy is always followed, though. Some coaches are known to do whatever it takes to acquire tips on a team.

Meeting on the MoundMost of the information gathered during the week is relayed from Vanderbilt's coaches to the players on gameday. That morning, the staff takes all of the data and Corbin presents it over a projector in a team meeting. Everything is organized the same way, no matter the opponent, so players can count on consistency.

"Our coaches all do a lot of research," junior outfielder Mike Yastrzemski said. "They have notebooks, charts, everything. They gather a bunch of information but don't want to overinform us because they don't want us to start thinking too much. They'll give us details like velo(city), maybe what the shape of their breaking ball looks like, and what they like to throw."

After the presentation, pitchers leave the meeting with stat sheets describing each hitter's arsenal. Associate Head Coach Derek Johnson discusses strategies with his pitchers to get them mentally prepared for the game.

"We know some players are going to be more pull-oriented or can hit the ball the other way. We take the information and then just go out there and pitch to our strengths," junior reliever Will Clinard remarked.

Vanderbilt's offense stays in the meeting room to view game film on the starting pitcher as well as relievers. Watching their delivery and release points keep the hitters from getting a cold look their first time at the plate.

"It's unbelievable," Yastrzemski added. "They have more information than you could ever need. Having that is an unbelievable asset."

When the Commodores arrive at the ballpark, the coaches make it a priority to watch BP to look for any tendencies in an opponent's swing.

"It gives us a little bit more of an idea of the bat plane of a kid, whether he's a low barrel or maybe an early hook type hitter, or a long swing type guy," Corbin said. "From there we make the proper adjustments."

Many decisions are made over the course of a game using situational statistics. The stats give a solid base for what you might need to know without seeing the player.

"If a kid is empty statistically against a certain pitcher, then it sometimes makes decisions a little bit easier for you when you go to the bullpen," Corbin said of one in-game scenario.

Anthony Gomez has seen the benefits of adjustments on defense, too.

"A lot of the times when I'm in the field, (Holliday) will move me over three or four steps and I'm like, 'This does not look right. I don't know what's going on here.' Next thing you know a ball gets hit right at me. Usually they're right on the money with a scouting report," the junior shortstop said.

Countless hours of research don't necessarily determine the outcome of the game. But the information plays a vital role in game preparation and crucial moments, especially for an uncommon opponent like UNC Wilmington.

And sleepless nights are worth any advantage on the Road to Omaha.

"When I came out of high school I had no idea how to pitch a hitter," Clinard admitted. "There's a lot of more mental stuff to it than you think there is. Now I know how to pitch hitters."



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